Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Reflections on Solitude

One of the things that struck me (once again) about Americans during the recent kerfuffle on the HOBD listserve  was that it seems impossible for people in the USA to have a proper discussion any longer. It all has to be sweetness and light—which means that those who don't want to know will continue to feel smug and approved. It would be nice if Americans could start channelling their inner adults.

Here are some reflections on the solitary life I wrote to the person who appears to be moderating the discussion on solitaries that was not posted on the HOBD listserve, but which might be useful to readers of this blog.

I'd like to reflect a little with you on the solitaries' situation, especially some critical issues that will be raised by communities, bishops and others.

First of all, solitaries are born; they do not 'choose' the way of life (I won't call it a vocation since this word has been ruined). Rather it is the next passage in a trajectory. 

Solitaries often come from difficult backgrounds; however, anyone who has had an addiction problem in their past should not undertake physical solitude. [I would also question anyone who has a so-called spiritual direction certificate or who has been ordained!]

Each solitary is unique but many share certain qualities. Solitaries can be exquisitely sensitive people, although this may not be readily apparent as women, especially, learn to wear masks, something that is very, very difficult for solitaries; they're really lousy at it, and it's one reason they need solitude. They have little in the way of small talk; they can do it but only at great cost. Being with groups of people can be very wearing; they prefer one-on-one.

They often have a 'sideways' view of things; they see life through a different set of lenses. Because they usually have been persecuted for insights that do not conform to the current fashion, they often will not be very forthcoming. It is especially true that the person speaking will draw out an answer at the same level as the question: that is, if someone asks a solitary a superficial question it will draw forth a superficial answer, and so on. 

The good law-minded folk will talk a lot about 'formation' (a dreadful word; it's the worst sort of presumption), 'rules' and the like. For the solitary, these terms must be set aside. There is only one teacher in solitude and that is the Holy Spirit. And there is only one way to discern the way forward, and that is to be faithful to the solitude. A solitary will do almost anything to guarantee their solitude, including living in less than perfect circumstances (I lived in a tent for three years, ramshackle cabins (one with the snow coming in) for five or more years, and so forth. If possible, the solitary should have access to nature; their hermitage should be in natural surroundings. There are many reasons for this, too many to go into here. Obviously this is not always possible.

The solitary's worst fear is that someone will take their solitude from them, or impose some stricture that interferes with the unfolding seamlessness of time and eternity. The solitary's life in solitude is very mundane, very ordinary; a fly on the wall would not notice anything special about it. There is no set Office, no set pattern (except a lot of solitaries get up in the night to pray); sometimes the Office will be important; sometimes life will be wordless. But the solitary needs to be immersed in the bible, especially the psalms, and the writings of the desert, which anyone can read. The words form an internal concordance and certain phrases arise in the silence, which are often guides to choices or barometers of the solitary's interior/emotional state. It's a good idea for someone taking on physical solitude to already be familiar with the bible, psalms, hymns and so forth so that there is a basis for this internal concordance to develop. Even for non-believers, the psalms are unsurpassed in their account of the human condition.

As to oversight, it's up to the solitary and he/she will have to experiment. There are varying rhythms to the solitary life. In the beginning, there should be as much solitude and as little interference as possible. The solitary should have someone to consult, but it should most definitely NOT be what today is called 'spiritual direction' which is, in my view, the most destructive force at work in the church today since fundamentalism. I have written extensively about this on my blog so won't reiterate here. 

What someone who is deepening their solitude (what outsiders would see as a 'beginner in solitude' when in fact someone undertaking this has in fact been a solitary all their life in one way or another) needs is another person, any person who has proclivities for stillness and silence, to consult now and then, but most definitely NOT someone who will give advice or do anything beyond listening and encouragement and perhaps a bit of practical help. The solitary must resist forming a relationship that might involve dependence (and this is just as true in reverse for the mature solitary, not allowing people who come to see him/her to become dependent.)

The reason for this is that the deeper the solitary goes into solitude, the more he/she is subject to a series of subtle forces that she/he needs to learn to discern. He/she will make mistakes—everyone seems to expect solitaries to be hatched adult, like Athena from Zeus's forehead, but solitaries are like anyone else and they learn not by doing but by being in solitude and falling flat on their faces. The desert fathers put it perfectly: sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything. The root word (and the root of the word obedience in Hebrew, Greek, Latin and English) is 'listen'.* This helps the solitary shift her/his centre from the superficial self-conscious mind to the deep mind where God inheres most intensely, so that instead of drawing on the static of self-consciousness, his/her everyday self-conscious living draws on this deep wellspring. Steven Horst's post put it very well (his discussion of nous), but unfortunately this understanding has mostly disappeared in the West. 

This is one reason, over and above its inherent self-contradiction, so-called spiritual direction is so destructive to the solitary: the process drags the directee back into self-consciousness. If  you're thinking about what you're going to say to your so-called director at the next meeting, you will not learn self-forgetfulness and the ordinariness of life fully integrated, which is the whole point of a life of prayer!

The problem is that the institution and people who run it are largely control freaks; the solitary is gaining control (going into solitude) in order to lose control, to be entirely open to the Spirit, what Heidegger calls waiting 'on' as opposed to waiting 'for'. It is a kind of free-fall in the love of God. It is risky. It can even be dangerous. But it is nobody's business but the solitary's. Certainly not committees, even more most certainly not religious communities of any kind. At the same time, it is, in fact, what every Christian is called to do whatever their state in life or religion or none. What I have written here applies to every seeker.

In other words, only solitude can teach the solitary. If he/she is listening, the needful books will fall into their hands; the needful people will turn up; the needful context as well. But it takes time, and the solitary has to learn to trust, to not be overwhelmed by anxiety or fear, and to learn to be solitary in whatever situation he/she finds herself, to recognise that God's hand is most evident in inadvertence—another reason to learn deep listening and live without pre-conceived ideas about solitude and the solitary. In this day and age, solitude and silence are very, very difficult to find, and a lot of us, myself included, have to make do. Above all the solitary has to learn humour and patience with him/her self, with God, with other people; to be moderate.

The main temptations a solitary faces is to conform to the pressures that will be put on him/her by well-meaning control freaks who want solitaries to fit a set of stereotypes;  another is to feel 'useful', that is, to become active in a way that is visibly useful instead of being faithful the vocation of stillness and hiddenness, what appears to the world to be useless. Much more could be said, of course, but I think you get the general drift.

I hope these few paragraphs show why any kind of legislation for solitaries—beyond, perhaps, having a bishop-protector if one is in the church—is inimical to the life.

* While I think the word 'behold' should always be used in translation for hinneh, idou, and ecce, due to the theological nuances the word bears, if a translator can't resist using another word, 'listen' is far better than the object-driven, analytical, visual words such as 'look', or 'see', both of which throw the hearer/reader back into their self-conscious minds.


Blogger Ultra Monk said...

I like this post a lot.

6:34 pm, May 02, 2012  
Blogger CMeditator said...

Forgive me for asking what may appear to be a rude question. It certainly is not meant to be rude and reflects my naivety in such matters. (I realise that your comments are presented in the context of issues with the HOBD and my comments are not really pointed in that direction either.) My query is given the comments in your post how do you believe non-solitaries should react to/respond to solitaries?

There is a measure of 'support' in the sense that we (non-solitaries) leave you to your solitude as I believe you imply in your post. On the other hand I find much to stimulate and challenge in the posts that you make and in your writing. That engagement with your writing is a kind of contact, not dependency, but connection.

Is being a solitary such an individual/personal experience that we (non-solitaries) cannot/should not expect to learn/benefit from the journey of a solitary? This would not appear to be true given the extensive literature that exists and that we are able to access and enjoy.

Is it the case that solitaries can never in life be absolutely in solitude otherwise they disconnect from this world? If this is the case then perhaps my perception of a solitary is misconceived. That being so then one of the fruits of there being solitaries in our world is that in the general population we can draw from and live out our lives informed by the reports from or writing of solitaries.

I can appreciate that these questions are probably rather elementary but it would help me to place my own approach into a better balanced context.

with kind regards


10:15 pm, May 02, 2012  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Dear Philip,

Very good question. What the solitary is given is never for him/herself alone. How those gifts are shared is different with every solitary. Just the fact that the solitary exists is sharing those gifts.

My blog is, as it were, like the window in an anchoress's cell where she talks with whoever comes. This is my way, however feebly, of sharing what has been give me—and I daresay I get it wrong far more than I get it right!

But I want to reiterate: everyone is a solitary; not everyone needs to go into physical solitude. Your journey into God is no different than mine, and I am sure, especially reading this comment, that you have been given gifts that would be of great benefit to me.

Thank you.


10:24 pm, May 02, 2012  
Blogger MAC said...

Could you please post a link or reference as to where "Steven Horst's post (his discussion of nous)" may be found. Thank you


PS - Ever since I read "The Way of Tears" in 1986 I have been grateful for your presence and perseverance.

2:01 pm, May 05, 2012  

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